Field of Science

"Hawking Hawking" and Michio Kaku

Two items of amusement and interest. One is a new biography of Hawking by Charles Seife, coming out tomorrow, that attempts to close the gap between Hawking’s actual scientific accomplishments and his celebrity status. Here's a good review by top science writer and online friend Philip Ball:

Seife's Hawking is a human being, given to petty disputes of priority and oneupmanship and often pontificating with platitudes on fields beyond his expertise. I used to have similar thoughts about Hawking myself but thought that his pronouncements were largely harmless fun. My copy of Seife's book arrives tomorrow and I am looking forward to his views, especially his take on how much it was the media rather than Hawking himself who fueled the exaggerations and the celebrity status.

The second item is an interview with Michio Kaku which seems to have ruffled a lot of feathers in the physics and science writing communities. 

The critics complain that he distorts the facts and says highly misleading things like string theory directly leading to the standard model. I hear the complaints as legitimate, but my take on Kaku is different. I don’t think of him as a science writer but as a futurist, fantasist and storyteller. I think of him rather like E. T. Bell whose “Men of Mathematics”, while highly romanticized and inaccurate regarding the details, nevertheless served to get future scientists Freeman Dyson and John Nash interested in math as kids. I doubt whether either Kaku himself or his readers take the details in his books very seriously.

I think we should always distinguish between writers who write about the facts and writers who tell stories. While you should be as rigorous as possible while writing about facts, you are allowed considerable leeway and speculation while telling stories. If not for this leeway, there wouldn't be any science writers and certainly on science fiction writers. A personal memory: my father was a big fan of Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock" and other futuristic musings. But he never took Toffler seriously as a writer on technology; rather he thought of him as an "ideas man" whose ideas were raw material for more serious considerations. If Kaku's writings get a few kids excited about science and technology the way "Star Trek' did, his purpose would be served.

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